Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Thirteen


The long winter was finally coming to an end. I know it wasn’t really longer than winters past, but it felt like it was. There are still a few areas of ice and snow in shady places, but the early blooming flowers are poking through the soil and will be in full bloom soon enough. Leaf buds are visible on the tree branches. I wanted to start a flower box in my bedroom window, but Father hasn’t able to purchase a new window to replace the one that was broken in the early days of the war. At least it’s only the bottom half of the window or my room would be very dark.

For the most part, we've learned to coexist with the Germans. Many of the details of daily life have been unaffected by their presence. Father goes to work every day. "As long as Polish businesses remain open, they still need their accountants," he liked to say. Max is still working part time at Uncle Jozef’s law firm and is continuing his law studies under Jozef’s tutelage. The firm has taken on more business since the German occupation. Several other firms shut down when their partners fled the country at the beginning of the war. They wanted to move their assets out of Poland before the Germans blocked them.

Max and Kate are still together, and their relationship is getting serious. Max bought a small engagement ring and plans to propose soon. Kate and I have come to know each other very well, and I’m looking forward to her joining the family. Kate’s mother had a couple of frantic months. There were rumors that the Germans were confiscating art collections from private citizens, and Kate's apartment was full of them. Her father pried up the floor boards under the heaviest pieces of furniture to hide the art and antiques. Kate's mother then had to use her decorating budget to purchase ugly knickknacks that the Germans wouldn’t look twice at. Her hope was that, if the Germans did enter their apartment, they would think there wasn’t anything worth finding.

My daily life consists mainly of mundane housework and cooking. I know it’s my responsibility to take care of Father and Max with Mother gone, but there really wasn’t that much to do. I go to the market most mornings to purchase what we need. Some foods, especially meat, have become scarce because most incoming shipments go straight to the Germans. Some foods are rationed, so we have to be creative. Luckily, Uncle Jozef has contacts who trade in the black market, which is bringing in foods from some of the farms in the area. It’s located in the basement of a building on the outskirts of town, and I go once a week to purchase some of the items I can’t get at the regular markets.

I spend a lot of my time reading. Before the Germans destroyed the university library, Uncle Jozef organized his “study group” to remove as many of the books and other collections as possible. Most of it is sitting in boxes in a hidden storage room in the basement of the law office. Max brings me a new book every week. With school closed, I don’t bother with math and science, neither of which I was good at anyway. I focus on history and literature, but I’ll read pretty much anything I can get my hands on. Father gives me a small allowance each month to purchase used books from street vendors for us to share.

Peter and I have a strong relationship. Father won’t give permission for me to marry until I’m eighteen, so we’ll have to remain unofficially engaged until then. During the winter, Peter and I met Maria and Tomas at the café every other Friday afternoon. Now that the weather is getting warmer, we hope to meet every Friday again. Father said that as long as he and Max have paying jobs, he’ll be able to give me an allowance for personal expenses. A lot of families don’t have that, so I feel very lucky.

Tomas disappeared for four weeks when the Germans “volunteered” him for a road-work crew. Maria had convinced herself that he was dead, but he finally returned home, ragged and thin. The toes on his left foot were severely frostbitten and had to be amputated, but he’s already up and about using a cane.

Father has been having fun making Peter work for his approval. I did figure out a way for Peter to really get on his good side. When Peter’s father receives shipments of liquor and wine from other countries, the Germans monitor the shipments, searching for hidden weapons in the crates. They don’t pay any attention to the packing materials, though, so the newspapers hidden in the crates make it safely past their checkpoints. Peter brings these to the “study group,” and when we’re finished translating and reading them, we share the newspapers with our families. I told Max to let Peter bring them to Father. Father loves his newspapers, so he actually looks forward to Peter’s visits. The news is a few weeks outdated, but "any news is better than no news," he likes to say. Peter also brings us a few treats. Apparently the liquor and wine suppliers are able to fill some of the bottles with small food items and medical supplies. Peter brings packets of miniature meats, such as salami, and cheeses every few weeks.

Over the past couple of months, there have been a lot of changes in the city. Those Poles and Jews who had the money and connections to escape are already gone. The last of the remaining Jews have been forced to relocate to the already overcrowded Jewish section of the city, just beyond the city hall. It turns out that the wall that was being constructed in that area late last year was not built to enclose the Jewish section. Rather it was built to restrict their movement into and out of certain parts of the city and is only a few blocks long. Father was right; it is just a wall. And it isn’t a very good wall at that, having been built by unskilled Jewish laborers who were “volunteered” for the task.

Uncle Jozef agreed to let me do more than just translate documents to help the resistance against the Germans. I’ve already completed several assignments carrying messages and small packages between Jozef and his contacts around the city. Father knows about it, but Max assured him that he’s keeping an eye on me and won’t let me take on anything too dangerous. The used books I purchase from the street vendors come in handy for hiding messages. I can walk down the street without being noticed and “accidentally” leave the book behind on a park bench or store counter. That’s also how I pick up some messages.

I feel very proud to be making even a small contribution to the resistance. I wish I could tell Maria what I’m doing, but I don’t trust her not to tell her father, who has developed close ties to the Germans. Maria was bragging about his reporting two Jewish children being hidden in the building next door to theirs. I don’t know how he found out about them, but both children and the family hiding them were forced out into the street and murdered on the spot. Lately, I feel like I’m continuing my friendship with her just so I can listen to her stories and maybe glean something useful from them.

I’m on my way out to deliver another message, this one hidden inside a ragged copy of The House of Seven Gables. I made sure to read the novel before cutting out a section the size of the small packet I was to carry. One important rule for this job: I’m not allowed to read the messages. I’m the courier, plain and simple.

As I headed out, I remembered the instructions Max gave me before my first assignment. First, try to stay on busy sidewalks whenever possible so I blend into the crowd. Second, don’t stare at the ground like I’m afraid or have something to hide. Walk erect, making eye contact with people. If it’s a nice day, admire the birds and flowers. And, finally, if I’m being followed, or feel like I’m being followed try to keep walking normally and then duck inside a shop to try to give the person the slip. Don’t run unless absolutely necessary, and never run home or to a home or place of business of someone we know. I know the city well enough to be able to shake anyone tailing me.

I’m heading over to the park today to sit on a bench near the northeast corner of the park and pretend to read the book. At exactly three o’clock, I can expect to see a woman wearing a green hat with a brown ribbon. When I see her, I’ll pretend to sneeze, place the book on the bench, take out a handkerchief, and blow my nose. After that, I’ll stand and walk away without looking back, leaving the book.

Everything went as planned until, as I was walking away, something made me glance back toward the bench. Two German soldiers were questioning the woman in the green hat. They had the book. She was motioning that she didn’t know who left the book. The soldiers went over to an old man sitting across the way and asked him something. The next thing I knew, they were pointing at me. Shit! I turned to the right instead of taking my planned route home. It was difficult not to look back, but somehow I managed not to. My heart was racing.

As I came around the side of the building out of sight of the bench, I looked at my watch and made a comment to myself to indicate that I was late for an appointment, hoping that anyone near me would think I was picking up my pace because I was late for an appointment. At the next corner, I turned right again. This street was empty, so I began to run. I could hear loud footsteps behind me, so I turned again and ducked down under some stairs. I didn’t have a clear line of vision to the street, but I could hear the sound of boots on the cobblestones. The soldiers ran past my hiding place and stopped. I was sure they could hear my heart beating. It felt like it was about to jump out of my chest. Even my watch’s ticking sounded loud enough for them to hear. After a moment or two, I heard the boots again, this time just jogging instead of running, but definitely heading away from me. I let out a deep sigh.

I decided to wait five more minutes to make sure they were gone and so I could calm my nerves. The situation was scary but also invigorating. I’ve never been in trouble before, and coming so close to serious trouble was thrilling. I know I couldn’t tell Father about this, but Uncle Jozef needed to know so he could find out if the other courier was safe and if the message was intercepted.

I carefully poked my head out and didn’t see anyone. Just as I was about to rise, someone stepped out through of the door above my hiding place, so I stayed down, pretending to tie my shoes. The lady barely noticed me. I walked in the opposite direction from where the soldiers had gone. As I was walking, I found myself glancing back and to the side until I realized that was making me look guilty. Suddenly I noticed that I had walked all the way to the already crumbling wall around the Jewish section. The street running along the wall was quiet, so I turned the corner to rest for a moment and make sure the soldiers hadn’t doubled back.

I was near one end of the wall, where it abuts a bombed-out building. Most of the buildings on both sides of the wall had suffered severe damage. The wall itself appears to have been constructed from some of the building rubble.

The silence was suddenly broken by scraping and shuffling sounds in the corner. I listened for a few seconds and then slowly approached the wall. There were some broken crates and rusting barrels scattered around. It’s probably just a cat or dog scrounging for food, but my curiosity got the better of me and I had to look. As I got closer, I noticed a hole in the wall and the sudden flash of a hand disappearing on the other side. Definitely not an animal.

“Hello?” I whispered.

No response.

“Hello? Who's there? It’s okay, you don’t have to be afraid.”

I thought I heard a response but couldn’t make it out. So, after looking around to make sure no one can see me, I crawled over a couple of crates and kneeled down at the hole.

“Hello?” I said again.

“Hello,” the person replied. It was a girl’s voice.

“Hi, my name is Helena. What’s your name?” I tried to get a glimpse of her face but she was off to the side.

“My name is Gitla,” she replied.

“What are you doing?” I asked, pulling over a piece of wood to sit on.

“I was just looking for a quiet place to sit and think when I noticed this hole. I was curious to see if there’s anything to watch on your side, so I tried to make it a little bigger.”

“Well, it’s very quiet on my side. That’s why I’m here. I sort of got into a little trouble and need to lay low for a while.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Sorry, I can’t say. Are you a Jew? How old are you?”

“Yes, I’m Jewish. We all are on this side of the wall. I’m sixteen years old, almost seventeen.”

“I’m sixteen, too. Do you have a school to go to? We don’t. The Germans closed them all at my level.”

“No, no school. There are some informal schools for the younger children to make sure they learn the basics, but most of the older children have to try to find work or help out at home, so they don’t bother with school for us. I do have some books that I trade with other people.”

“I really miss school. I have access to books as well, so I read a lot of literature and history.” I leaned over directly in front of the hole. “Can I see what you look like?”

Gitla leaned forward. She had blue eyes and long, dark curly hair. Very pretty.

“I’ve seen you before, just before the war started. My mother and I were in a Jewish market. You and I bumped into each other. I wanted to tell you how much I liked your curly hair, but you hurried off before I had a chance. This is a weird coincidence.”

“I’m sorry,” Gitla said. “I don’t remember you. I like your straight hair. My hair is so difficult to manage.”

I laughed. “I guess we always want what we don’t have.”

“Very true,” Gitla said with a giggle. “Do you have the time? I need to be at work at five. I work the dinner shift at the soup kitchen, serving and cleaning up.”

“Yes, it’s a little past four. I should get going. I have an important phone call to make. It was very nice meeting you. Maybe we can meet here once a week. It looks like a nice quiet spot on both sides of the wall.”

“I’d like that,” Gitla said.

“How about Friday afternoons, just after lunch, weather permitting?” I suggested.

“That’s a good time for me. It’ll be nice to get to know you and hear about life out there in the world.”

“Well, it’s not very exciting out here, and my world is very small, but you’re right, it will be nice to have someone new to chat with. Ooh, wait, I just remembered,” I said, reaching into my pocket. “Here, I have a couple of candies. Would you like one?”

“Yes, thank you very much. It’s been months since I had a treat,” Gitla said, quickly unwrapping the candy and placing it in her mouth. “That is so good! Thank you again.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll try to bring more next time. I’ll see you soon.”

“Goodbye. Have a pleasant week.”

I peeked out to make sure no one was around. The street was still deserted. The buildings were so badly damaged and I doubted anyone lived in them anymore. This was a good spot for secret meetings.

As I began my walk home I looked back at my secret corner. A new friend, very exciting. And what a coincidence, the girl from the park and the market. I wondered what the odds were of that happening. People were beginning to head home after work, so the streets were becoming more crowded. Good for me; I felt more comfortable on busy sidewalks than quiet streets right now.

As soon as I arrived home, I called Uncle Jozef at work to tell him what had happened. He was glad that I was able to act quickly to get myself to safety, but he hadn’t heard yet if the other courier had been so lucky. He knew I was worried about her and promised to let me know as soon as he found out anything. No more courier assignments for a while though. We need to make sure that the Germans weren’t looking for me. I didn’t tell him about Gitla. That’ll be my secret, at least for now. Father and Max will be home soon, so I quickly washed and started making dinner. Soup and crackers…again. Each week I hoped to find something interesting at the market to break the monotony, but that rarely happened.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Twelve


It was a cold, gray day, the first Christmas after my mother died. I decorated the apartment, but my heart wasn’t really in it. We couldn’t find a real Christmas tree this year, so Max pieced one together from things he found around the house. It didn’t look too bad once it was covered with a lot, and I mean a lot, of garland and tinsel.

 We have one new ornament this year. When we cleaned out Grandpa Nick’s apartment, we found a box of family photos. Luckily, Father had seen them before and helped us identify each one. I organized them into a photo album which I find myself browsing through at least once a week, looking at photos of Mother when she was younger. Max made a copy of one photo for me, a professional sitting with my mother and her parents. She must have been about two years old. I made the copy into an ornament, hanging it where it’s visible from everywhere in the sitting room and kitchen.

Peter arrived about an hour before we were to leave to go to Uncle Jozef’s house. Aunt Rose was kind enough to let me invite Peter and his father. Peter's father will meet us there. He wanted to keep the liquor store open until at least noon for the last-minute Christmas shoppers. Many of the German soldiers don’t have their families with them, and they apparently try to drown their loneliness by drinking themselves into a stupor. At least that’s what Peter’s father said.

A few days after we buried Mother, the Russians pulled out of town, and the Germans reclaimed it. Peter’s father made a point of letting both know that he would offer them special prices, which, of course, Peter sees as a form of collaboration with our enemies. His father figures that a drunk soldier is a stupid soldier, and we might all be better off. That’s a nice theory but we haven’t seen it proved yet.

Peter and I rarely have time alone together. Father and Max had gone out to take care of something, so Peter and I were able to relax on the sofa and talk. Talking quickly led to kissing and, just as Peter slipped his up under my sweater, I heard the key in the door. Max stepped through the door first, grinning as Peter finished his leap to the far end of the sofa.

“Well, well, look who’s here,” Max said with a smirk on his face. “And what have you two been up to?”

I shot a nasty look in his direction.

Peter jumped to his feet as my father walked in. “Hello, sir,” he said nervously, extending his hand. “It’s good to see you again. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too, Peter. I’m glad that you and your father can join us today. Is he here?”

“Thank you, sir. He’ll meet us at Jozef’s house a little later. It’s been a long time since Christmas Day has been more than just the two of us, so this is a treat. We have some gifts for all of you,” Peter said as he reached for the bag near the front door. He handed my father a bottle of brandy and gave Max and I small boxes.

“Oh, Peter, not jewelry!” Max exclaimed, jokingly. “You shouldn’t have.”

“Wise ass,” I said. “Just open your gift.”

It was a beautiful pen. “Thanks, Peter. This is really nice.”

My turn. I wanted to tear into the wrapping paper but it was too pretty. I carefully pulled back the tape, set the paper aside, and opened the little box. It was a beautiful necklace with a heart-shaped locket. “Oh, Peter, it’s beautiful,” I said as he took it from me and fastened it around my neck. I gave him a kiss and hug.

“Open it,” he said. I opened the locket, and inside were the faces of my parents on their wedding day. My tears started flowing and I hugged him again.

“Thank you so much. I couldn’t have asked for a more meaningful gift.”

“Max helped me with the pictures,” he said.

Max got a big hug, too. I went to Father to show him. “Lovely.  Good job, Peter,” he said and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

I put my arms around Peter. “It’s like she’s with us.”

“Helena, Max, I need to speak with you in my bedroom for moment. Peter, please excuse us.”

I gave Peter another kiss and followed Father and Max into the bedroom. Father closed the door.

“I’m sorry to do this on Christmas Day but I need to show you something, and then we’ll hopefully never have to mention it again.” He opened the paper bag he'd been holding and pulled out a pistol.

“A gun!” I said. “Why do we need a gun?”

He handed the pistol and bag to Max, kneeled down on the floor, slid some items on the closet floor forward, and used his thumbnail to pull up one of the floorboards. “This is why.”

There were bundles of cash in the hole, as well as Mother’s jewelry and the pocket watch that Grandpa Andrej gave Father for his eighteenth birthday.

“I’m placing the gun in here to be used only in case of emergency. The gun is loaded. The safety is on, see here, and this is a box of extra ammunition. The rule applies to both of you. You are only to open this in case of a real emergency. If there’s one thing the past few months have taught us, it’s that there are a lot of things in this world that we can’t control. Hopefully we’ll never need this cash, never need to sell these valuables, and certainly never need to use this gun, but they’re here just in case. Okay? Any questions?”

Max and I shook our heads as he concealed the hiding place. “Ready to go celebrate Christmas?”

We bundled up to walk over to Uncle Jozef’s. The streets and sidewalks have snow and ice on them from the last snowfall, but this is usually their condition until the first warm days of spring. There are a few others out, probably on their way to visit family. If the Catholic churches hadn’t been closed indefinitely, there would be more people outdoors, but the Germans won’t allow the churches to be reopened.

One thing I noticed as we walked along was the absence of armbands. The Jews are staying indoors. When the Germans reoccupied the city, they ordered all Jews still living in the center of town to wear armbands identifying themselves as Jewish, and later to begin relocating to the Jewish district. We live just beyond what's considered the center of town. When the order took effect, we realized for the first time that some of our neighbors were Jewish. I counted four Jewish families on our block. Even my father was surprised.

A new order was issued last week requiring that every Jew in the town move into the Jewish district by the end of the year. Max’s friends have received news that the Germans have assigned Jews to begin building a wall around the district to fence themselves in. Father told me not to worry, that it was just a wall, and that it might even keep them safe from daily dealings with the Germans. Something doesn’t sound right with his logic, but for now, I accepted it.

As we walked along, I read the posters, warnings, and orders that the Germans have posted all over town. After I got past the initial grief of losing my mother and grandfather, I became very angry, wanting to seek revenge against the Russians for their deaths. I begged Max to let me join his "study group." When the Germans reoccupied the city, they closed all of the schools above the middle school level, and I was bored. I needed a project, as well as an outlet for my anger.

Max explained to me that he and his friends weren’t out there shooting our enemies. They’re involved in gathering and sharing information, and making plans for a more active revolt in the future. He spoke to Uncle Jozef, and they decided to assign me the task of learning German. They needed someone who could read German and translate it into Polish, and who could also understand spoken German to help gather information. Max brought me some books from the university library. At first I was bored, but little by little, I came to enjoy it, especially the first time I was able to translate a stolen document into Polish. I felt like a secret agent. Peter and I never speak about what each of us is doing for the resistance. We didn’t want our relationship to be about that.

***

Aunt Rose had placed a few decorations in the window. She prefers to overdo it, but Uncle Jozef warned her that they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. When we entered their house, I subconsciously took a small step backward as everyone descended on us.

“Merry Christmas.”

“So good to see you.”

“You’re looking well.”

“Max, Helena, you both look like your mother.”

I just smiled, and replied in kind, letting Peter guide me through the mass of people. The party was larger than past gatherings. As Rose explained to me later, a lot of people couldn’t travel to visit family because of the war so she started inviting everyone. She couldn’t go all out on the decorations, so she was going to cook and entertain instead.

Peter noticed that his father had already arrived, so we went to say hello. After that Peter and Max disappeared, probably to have some top secret meeting with Uncle Jozef, so I went to the kitchen to see if I could help. Rose put me in charge of decorating the cookies, probably thinking that I had inherited my mother’s flair for all things baked. She couldn’t help but giggle when she saw how inept I was at frosting cookies.

“Don’t worry, Helena. No matter what they look like, they all taste the same.”

The party turned out to be a lot of fun. It was our first real social outing since Mother’s passing. If we can survive this, we can survive anything. Rose loaded us up with leftovers, still worried that we’d starve without her.

I invited Peter to come over for lunch the next day. I was so excited when he gave me the locket that I forgot to give him his gift. Father had to work, and I was hoping Max would give us some privacy. I knew he wouldn’t make it easy, but he strangely disappeared just before Peter arrived for lunch. I asked Peter if he knew where Max had gone, and he told me that Max had a lunch date of his own. “Her name is Kate,” he said.

Interesting! Now when Max teases me about Peter, I can tease him about Kate. Peter and I had a very nice afternoon. I still find it amazing that after almost three months we still have so much to talk about. Of course, we don’t spend all of our time talking. I feel very comfortable with Peter, but when I felt his hand sliding up my skirt, I stopped him.

“Wait, Peter, no. I’m not ready for that.”

“Ready for what?” he asked, his hand still on my inner thigh.

“You know what I mean,” I said as I removed his hand and pulled my skirt back down. “I’m not ready.”

“I don’t mind waiting because I know it will be worth the wait, but do you have any idea when you will be ready?” he smirked, sliding his hand up my thigh.

 “I don’t know," I said as I blocked his hand again. "I’m only sixteen. My mother would want me to wait until I’m married.”

“Is that what you want?”

“Again, I don’t know. This is all new for me. That little voice in my head, the one telling me to slow down, sounds a lot like my mother’s voice. Until I figure out what I want, it’s probably a good idea for me to listen to it. I do know that I love you,” I said, taking his hand.

Peter put his arms around me as we lay down next to each other on the sofa. “I love you, too.” He pulled me close.

“I promise, you’ll be the first to know when I am ready.”

“Well, I certainly hope so.”

Peter and I were asleep on the sofa when my father walked through the door. I opened my eyes to see him standing there, looking at us. I looked at my watch.

“Oh my goodness, it’s that late already?” I exclaimed.

Peter sat up and fumbled for his shoes, very aware that my father was still staring at us.

“I’m sorry Father. I’ll get dinner started. Peter, would you like to stay?”

My father finally spoke. “I think Peter should leave. You two have seen enough of each other for today.”

I was stunned.

“Father, no. Nothing happened. After lunch we were talking and must have dozed off. We weren’t --,” I search for the right word. “Intimate. That’s the truth.”

“I think Peter should leave anyway, so we can talk.”

“Not a problem, sir. My father is probably wondering where I am. He expects me to help him with the year-end inventory count.”

I handed Peter his coat. He whispered a thank you for the leather gloves I gave him and hurried past my father out the door. I rushed to the kitchen to start dinner.

“Where’s Max? I thought he had the day off from work,” Father asked

I didn’t want to get Max in trouble by saying that he had a secret date. “I don’t know. He’s been out most of the day.”

He placed his coat and hat on the coat rack, set his briefcase next to the door, poured himself a drink, and sat in the arm chair. We were having the Christmas leftovers for dinner, so it didn’t take long to reheat them. Father didn’t say a word until we finished eating. I wish Max had come home to take the pressure off of me. After I cleared the table, Father told me to sit down.

“Helena. I know you’re a young woman now, and I wish your mother was still here. She could handle this situation better than I can. I know she already told you about the intimate relationship between a man and a woman. Peter is older than you and may already have some experience in these matters. I don’t know. I do know that I can’t lock you away. All I can do is hope that we raised you to respect yourself and you won’t allow yourself to feel forced to do things you’re not ready for. Also, I hope you know that I’m here if you need to talk about anything. If you’re more comfortable speaking with a woman, I’m sure Aunt Rose will be happy to help.”

I took his hands in mine. “I know you’re here if I need you, and you and Mother did instill me with good values. I swear, nothing inappropriate happened between Peter and me today, or ever.”

He squeezed my hands and smiled.

“Peter and I had a talk about the physical part of our relationship and he understands that I’m not ready for, well, that. If he ever tries to force me, he’ll be out the door before he knows what hit him.”

Father smiled and kissed the top of my head tenderly as he walked to his bedroom. I know that wasn’t easy for him. Mother usually handled the more personal conversations. As he gets to know Peter better, he’ll see that Peter is a good man.

The door opened, and Max walked in with a big smile on his face.

“Great, now you come home,” I said.

“What? What did I miss?”

Father poked his head out to confirm that it was just Max arriving home.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

“Just out with friends.”

“Uh huh.” Father raised his eyebrows and shook his head, going back into his room.

“So, how was your secret date?” I asked.

“Date, what date?"

“Don’t play coy with me. Peter told me about Kate.”

“Damn Peter. He’ll get his. Kate’s a girl I met at the office and we’ve gone out a few times. It’s nothing serious, not yet anyway.”

“What’s with all the secrecy?”

“I don’t know. I guess I just want to see how things work out first before I bring her home. You’ll meet her next weekend. She invited all three of us--well, I guess four with Peter if I don’t kill him first--to a small gathering for New Year’s Eve.”

“Good. I look forward to meeting her. And leave Peter alone. If you hurt him I might have to hurt you,” I said, shaking a fist at him.

“Ooh, I’m scared,” he said, practically sticking his nose into the baking dish I pulled from the oven. “So what’s for dinner? Ah, Christmas leftovers. Yum!” He stood in the kitchen grinning, eating from the baking dish. Typical!

***

I wanted to bake something special for the New Year’s Eve party, but I wasn’t able to purchase any eggs this week. I got  to the market at my regular time but they were either sold out already or didn’t receive a supply this week. There were some nice vegetables, so I decided to make a vegetable tray with dip. We usually eat all of our vegetables cooked, so I think this will be a nice change. Plus, it won’t get cold on the walk to Kate’s apartment.

Peter came by our apartment with two bottles of wine and walked over with us. Kate answered the door and her face lit up when she saw Max. She’s very pretty, with skin and hair darker than I’d expected. Max told me later that Kate’s paternal grandparents are Italian and had moved to Poland for business reasons shortly after her father was born. She had a lot of family back in Italy.

“You have a beautiful home,” I said to Kate. “If you have some time later, I’d like to know about some of the antiques.”

“Thank you. The apartment is small, thanks to my father. It’s just the three of us and he’s too thrifty to splurge on a larger place, even though he can afford it. My mother decided that if she’s stuck with a small apartment, it might as well be nicely decorated. My father has tried to get her to stop spending money but decided the best thing to do was to give her a decorating allowance. No exceptions. If she spends all of the money in January, that’s it for the year. So far his plan has worked well.”

Kate isn’t shy at all. I like that, and I already like her. Max has good taste.

“Where can I set this down? It’s a tray of fresh vegetables and dip.”

“Oh, here, on the big table.” She removed the wrapper and immediately took a piece of carrot. “That is so good. My mother always overcooks vegetables, so it’s nice to crunch.”

Max and Peter came over. I feel like such a grownup. Max and Kate, and Peter and I at a New Year’s Eve party; no small children around. Father found some new friends to discuss politics with, so he’s enjoying himself. I need to ask him if I can have some champagne at midnight. I meant to ask earlier but forgot If he says no, I’ll be the only person at the party without an alcoholic beverage, and everyone will know I’m still a kid. He had better say yes.

The one long dinner table was set with beautiful china and fresh flowers. The ladies began bringing out the food, so I helped. There were a total of twenty guests. After we were seated in our assigned seats, Kate’s father offered the blessing, ending with a hope for peace in the upcoming year. There was a hardy “amen” to that as we began passing the dishes around the table. Father poured me a half a glass of wine so I won’t feel left out. How did he know? The first sip tasted a little bitter, but the second was much better. It’s a nice treat to help make the night special.

After the meal, coffee, brandy, and desserts were set out on the table where the appetizers had been located. I went straight for the chocolate layer cake. Peter selected something called a cannoli, an Italian dessert, Kate told us. Within seconds he had powdered sugar all over his lips and fingers.

“Tasty, but messy,” he said as I helped him clean up.

As midnight approached, Kate and her parents handed out party favors and hats, and poured the champagne. Father gave me a nod that it was alright for me to take a glass. Without the local radio station we have to rely on Kate’s father’s pocket watch for the countdown.

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, Happy New Year!

There was kissing and hugging, everyone tooting their horns and raising their glasses to 1940. Father, Max, and I had a group hug, and Father kissed each of us on the cheek. I noticed a little sadness in his eyes, probably missing Mother. I suddenly felt a little guilty that I hadn't thought of her once the entire evening.

The party broke up about an hour later. We walked a couple of blocks out of the way so that Peter didn't have to walk home alone. About two blocks from our apartment, we saw two German soldiers walking toward us, obviously drunk. We were in the middle of the block, so there was nothing we could really do but lock arms and just keep walking. As we got close, one of the soldiers tripped over the curb, caught his balance, and said “Happy New Year!” very loudly.

“Happy New Year,” we replied, Father and Max tipping their hats We continued walking. So did the soldiers, thankfully. I hated being on edge when the Germans were nearby, and I wasn't going to let this spoil my good mood. It was the perfect end to a far-from-perfect year.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Just a Wall - Chapter Eleven


 “Helena,” Wanda said as she shook me. “Hurry, we have to go. I’m coming with you. Our mothers were together. Helena, now!”

What could have happened to Mother? I looked at the clock. She’s at her bible study brunch. I finally started moving. We dressed, grabbed our things, and rushed downstairs to where Max was waiting.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you on the way,” he replied. “Wanda, you can’t come with us.”

“I have to come with you. Our mothers were together.”

Max seemed angry. “Fine then. I don’t have time to argue. If your mother’s not at the hospital, you can call her from there.”

Arriving at the hospital, we ran up the stairs. My heart was racing. Father was in the hallway, speaking with the doctor. I ran to him.

“What happened to Mother? Is she alright?”

He kissed my forehead and stroked my hair.

“It’s okay. She’ll be okay,” he said. I began crying.

“Doctor, is there a phone Wanda may use to call her parents?” Father asked. “Her mother was with my wife before the attack, and we’re not sure where she is.”

“Attack! Mother was attacked!” I cried. Father hugged me tighter and put a hand on Max’s shoulder, assuring us that we’ll all get through this.

He walked us over the chairs. Father repeated the story that was reported by a woman who witnessed most of the attack.

"Your mother was walking with her friends to Aunt Rose’s house for their brunch. Suddenly there were three Russian soldiers behind them. The soldiers attempted to grab all three of them. Somehow two were able to get away, but they had your mother. She started to scream so they slapped and punched her to quiet her. One soldier grabbed her from behind and placed his hand over her mouth. The other two held her legs and they carried her into the lobby of a nearby apartment building."

"The witness only saw what happened out in the street, but she could hear your mother struggling in the lobby, the Russians yelling at her, and the sounds of them hitting her. That went on for about fifteen minutes, until she heard a door slam and everything went quiet. She waited a few minutes to make sure the soldiers were gone and then quietly cracked open her door. She could hear sobbing down in the lobby. She walked down the stairs to find your mother face down on the floor with most of her clothes torn off, so she ran back upstairs and called for an ambulance."

“So she was—“ Max said.

“Yes, she was raped,” Father replied.

Raped. I heard the word, but it didn’t register in my mind. Max was crying now. and I could see that Father was trying to hold himself together. He put an arm around each of us, leaned in, and allowed himself to cry. Why aren’t I crying now? I was before. I’m still trying to absorb the details. Until today, the war hadn’t had a significant impact on our lives, just superficial changes in our daily routines. But now it really hit home. My mother would never hurt another person, and she was viciously beaten and raped. She fought against her attackers, but they overpowered her. And now she - we - have to deal with the aftermath of the attack. Father and Max are crying, and I’m just sitting here. “Can we see her?” I finally asked.

Father started to stand when Max placed a hand on his shoulder. “You sit. I’ll go ask.” He nodded and slumped back into his seat. Wanda came over.

“How is your mother?” Wanda asked.

“Max went to get an update,” I replied.

“My father is coming to pick me up,” Wanda said. “He tried talking to my mother to find out what happened, but she’s curled up in bed crying.

“What happened?” Father looked up at her. “What happened is that your mother left my wife in the hands of those monsters. That’s what happened.” I put my arm around him, and he began sobbing again. Wanda hung her head and walked away.

Max returned a short while later with two cups of coffee and a tea for me.

“The doctor said she’ll be asleep for several hours, thanks to the painkillers they gave her. I asked if a police report was filed, and he told me that he’s seen quite a few of these attacks. The local police don’t have the power to investigate the Russian soldiers. He said the best thing is to just heal physically and find a way to deal with the emotional scars."

"I also asked for the name of the woman who witnessed the attack and called the ambulance, but he said she asked to remain anonymous. She didn’t want her name in any official reports. Maybe we can find out which building it was and leave a note for the woman, thanking her for her assistance.”

Wanda’s mother would know, I thought. She owes us that much.

Father had found a piece of paper and pencil and began making a list of things that need to be done: phone calls to family, letting his boss know he needs a few days off from work, bringing Mother a few personal items to make her more comfortable.

He stood and put on his jacket to leave when Max stopped him.

“Father, let us take care of everything. When Mother wakes, you should be here.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “We can handle this. We’ll go home, make the calls, and get Mother’s things. After that, we’ll get Grandpa Nick and bring him here. He’ll want to see her as soon as she wakes.”

Father nodded and collapsed back into his chair. “Stay together. I don’t want either of you walking alone out there. I mean it.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll be fine,” Max said.

Don’t worry? Of course he'll worry. He’s our father. I gave him a hug and a kiss and we left.

It felt good to be out in the fresh air. The hospital was so stuffy because they don’t open the windows. I clutched Max’s arm as we hurried home, wondering who might be watching us. I tried to imagine what my mother looked like, lying there in her hospital bed, and wondering what she was feeling. Fear? Anger? I know her well, but I still can’t decide which, or maybe both.  We turned onto our block, and I noticed Wanda standing at the front door of her apartment building.

“How is your mother?” she asked meekly, not stepping beyond the doorway.

I gave her an angry glare and continued on into our building. It isn’t her fault that her mother ran, but I have no one to blame right now, and I could feel the anger rise up in me when I looked at her.

“Put together a bag for Mother,” Max ordered me. I could hear the anger in his voice. “I’ll make a few quick phone calls.”

I went into my parent’s bedroom and found a small leather bag. I don’t know why they own luggage; they never go anywhere. Mother talks about going to London to visit Alex, especially since the twins were born, but Father doesn’t like to take time off from work. I’m not sure why. Maybe after the war she and I can go, even if Father doesn’t want to. I gathered her nightgown, some undergarments and slippers, hairbrush, and toothbrush. I also packed the family photo she keeps on her nightstand and her Bible. Standing in the middle of the room, spinning in a circle trying to think of what else she might need, I was suddenly overcome with sadness and began weeping. I dropped down to the floor, and the picture frame slipped from my hand, the glass cracking. That made me cry even louder.

Max came running in to see what had happened. I tried to tell him I was fine but I couldn’t get the words out. He sat on the floor next to me, rubbing my back. I finally caught a breath deep enough to speak.

“How can something like this happen? How can God let this happen to a woman on her way to bible study? How will she get past this?”

Max knew I didn’t really want answers to those questions, so he just kept rubbing my back. I just needed to get it out. I don’t know exactly how long we sat there on the floor but the weight isn’t as heavy now.

“We need to find another picture frame for this photo,” I said. “We can’t bring her a cracked frame. I think the one on the end table is the same size.”

I took another deep breath, and Max and I stood up. He threw everything into the bag as I went to swap out the frames.

“I called Father’s boss at home, and he told me to tell him to take as long as he needs. Aunt Rose said she was worried when Mother and the other ladies didn’t show up for brunch. She tried calling us, but of course, no one was home. She'll let Jozef know, and we should call her when we get home so she can bring us food for the week. And, finally, I was able to get through to Uncle Alex’s house in London. He wasn’t there, but I spoke with Aunt Maggie. She told us to keep them updated and that Mother was in her prayers.”

I was listening to Max but not really hearing his words, so I just nodded.

“We need to pick up Grandpa Nick. With the stories he’s told me about the Russians, I can only imagine how angry he’ll be at the situation. We should also stop by the café for some sandwiches. Father will forget to eat if we don’t bring him something. Ready?”

“Yes, ready. No, wait, her robe. How could I forget that?” I ran into the bedroom to get it. “Now I’m ready.”

We walked over to Grandpa Nick’s apartment. I could feel Max tense as we walked up the stairs, dreading having to tell an old man that his daughter was in the hospital, severely beaten. He knocked on the door.

“Well, hello grandchildren! Come in. To what do I owe this pleasure? Are your parents with you?”

We both hugged him, but he quickly noticed that I was tearing up and asked what was wrong.

“Sit down, Grandpa,” Max said, helping him to his favorite chair. “Something has happened.”

As Max told him what had happened, I could see Grandpa’s hand tightening around his cane until his knuckles turned white.

“Those fucking bastards!” he yelled as he swung his cane, knocking over a table lamp. “How dare they hurt my girl! Bastards!”

“Grandpa, please, sit down before you hurt yourself,” Max said.

He knocked over the other table lamp before he realized I was still crying. The anger drained from his body, and he held out his arms to me.

“Sorry sweetie. I didn’t mean to scare you. Max, come here,” he whispered, waving Max forward, and he put his arms around both of us. “Everything will be okay.”

When we arrived back at the hospital, Uncle Jozef was there with Father. I felt better knowing that he hadn’t been sitting there alone the entire time we were gone. The doctor had allowed Father into Mother’s room, even though she was still asleep. Jozef said that Father was able to suppress his emotions when he was in the room, not wanting to upset her if she could hear him, but his hands were trembling by the time he came back to the waiting room.

“Did you see her, Uncle Jozef?” Max asked.

“Yes, I stepped in for a moment. Are you ready for the details?”

We all nodded and I held on to Max’s arm. “Her face is badly bruised and swollen, and she has a bandage over one eye. There are cuts to her lower lip and cheek that required stitches, and she has a concussion.”

I felt the tears welling up in my eyes again, but I took a deep breath to suppress the urge to cry. Grandpa Nick rubbed my back. “Are there any broken bones?” he asked.

“No,” Jozef continued. “The doctor said he was surprised that none of her bones were broken, and there was no internal bleeding. There are a few other injuries…Michal, should I tell them?”

Father nodded. Jozef took a deep breath and continued.

“There is a lot of bruising on her thighs and backside, and she also needed stitches as a result of the sexual assault.” I buried my face in Max’s chest as he put his arm around me.

“Fucking bastards!” Grandpa Nick was shouting again. He began pacing and hitting the chairs with his cane. It took us a few minutes to calm him down. The hospital staff was just staring, shocked at such language coming from this old man. Father apologized to them.

“Father, sit down,” Max said, guiding him to a chair. “We brought you something to eat. It’s been a long day and you need to keep up your strength. Jozef, would you mind getting us something to drink?”

“Not a problem. I’ll be right back. You should all eat.”

Max and I sat down on either side of our father and unwrapped the sandwiches. They’re warm by now, but until I took a bite, I didn’t realize how hungry I was. Jozef came back with an assortment of drinks.

“I grabbed two of everything,” he said. “Nick, come sit with us. What would you like to drink?”

Grandpa Nick looked up. “Nothing, thank you, I’m fine. The children should drink the milk.”

Max and I grinned. He still sees us as little kids. We both reached for the milk to make him happy. Father managed to eat only half of his sandwich before setting it aside and going to find the doctor. Visiting hours end soon, and he wanted to see Mother again. Max and I wanted to see her, too, but Uncle Jozef suggested that we wait until tomorrow. She might be awake then. I really want to see her now, but I guess it makes sense to wait. I don’t know if I can control my emotions right now, and if she's awake, I don’t want to upset her. Grandpa Nick went with my father. No one can stop him from seeing his daughter.

When we left the hospital for the day, Max and I insisted that Grandpa Nick spend the night with us.

“You can take my bed, Grandpa,” Max said. “I don’t mind the sofa.”

It took a lot of convincing. He didn’t really feel comfortable outside of his own apartment. "Just an old man set in his ways," he would say.

We arrived home to the smell of bread baking. Aunt Rose was there. She used Uncle Jozef’s spare key to get in. She had just taken a casserole out of the oven and was waiting for the rolls to finish baking. The apartment had been cleaned, and the table was set. She came over and hugged each of us.

“How is Zofia?”

“She’s stable,” Jozef replied.

Father was in a daze and walked straight to his bedroom.

“She was badly beaten, but all of her physical injuries will heal," Jozef said. "It’s the emotional injuries that will take time to mend.”

I could see that Rose wanted to cry, but she held it in, being strong for us. Jozef took her into his arms and hugged her tightly.

After dinner Aunt Rose insisted on cleaning up. She packed up the leftovers and gave me instructions for reheating them tomorrow. She told me not to worry about any meals. Everything would be taken care of.

“Thank you. Mother would appreciate your taking care of us.”

“It’s family,” she replied. “She would do the same for Jozef and Viktor if I were injured or ill.”

She’s right. Mother would step up without a second thought.

After Jozef and Rose left, I glanced over at the clock and realized that, for a long day, it' was still rather early. I went to see if Father had eaten the dinner we brought him. It looked like he had taken a couple of bites before falling asleep. I cleared the plate and left him a glass of water on the nightstand, hoping he’d sleep through the night.

I joined Max and Grandpa Nick in the sitting room. No one had anything to say, so Max turned on the radio. We listened to the news for a little while, and then he switched to music. Grandpa soon dozed off in the armchair. Max woke him and helped him into bed, loaning him a pair of pajamas, and then came back to the sofa. We just sat there, listening to the music, but not really hearing it.

***

Mother was awake when we arrived at the hospital the next morning. The doctor warned us, though, that although the swelling may have subsided a bit, the bruises will usually look worse before they begin heal. Grandpa Nick pushed ahead into the room, followed by Father and then Max and me. Her face looked worse than I imagined, but we all smiled and told her how glad we were to see her. I walked over to the bed and tried to hold her hand, but she pulled away.

“I’m sorry. Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry,” I said, beginning to cry again.

Her lips were moving, trying to make out words. I leaned in and she whispered, “Don’t cry. Hand is okay. My fault, not yours.”

Her fault? “No, Mother. Nothing is your fault. All you have to think about it resting and getting well.” This time she let me take her hand while Father dabbed away her tears with his handkerchief.

Grandpa Nick was getting angry again, so he left the room to go for a walk. We told Mother about Aunt Rose coming by to clean the apartment and cook for us, and she nodded her approval.

“You and Max. Work. Helena. School,” she whispered to Father, who assured her that missing a few days wasn’t a problem. It’s more important that we all be together. She nodded again but was obviously sleepy.

Max and I went out into the hallway. Father stayed a moment longer, until two nurses entered the room to turn her over so the cuts on her backside don’t get infected. It felt good to be able to see her after that long day yesterday, but at the same time it’s a relief to leave the room. I couldn’t look at her face a second longer. My mother was in there somewhere.

Max and I sat in the waiting room while Father went to look for Grandpa Nick. I just sat there, watching a small spider crawl around in the corner. Max was writing something, but I’m not curious enough to look over to see what it is. I realized that when we were in the room, I hadn’t set the family photo on the nightstand for Mother to see when she wakes. Maybe a nurse will let me sneak in.

As I stood, the doctor came over to us. “Is your father here?”

“No," Max replied. “He went to look for our grandfather. Is something wrong with our mother?”

The doctor let out a sigh and rubbed his forehead. “No, your mother is resting. It’s your grandfather. Maybe I should wait for your father.”

“What?” I asked. “What’s wrong with Grandpa?”

He looked around to see if Father was nearby, but decided that he needed to tell us either way.

“Your grandfather is in the emergency room. A hospital employee saw the entire incident. She reported that your grandfather had been walking around in front of the hospital, swatting bushes with his cane, when he noticed several Russian soldiers nearby. He stood there for a moment, staring at them, before marching over and swinging his cane at them. He was screaming ‘Damn Cossacks!’ and accused them of attacking his daughter. At first the soldiers sparred with him, laughing, but then his cane hit one of them on the head, and they weren’t playing anymore. They beat him to the ground with the butts of their rifles, kicking him and spitting on him, until one soldier removed a pistol from his belt and fired a single shot into your grandfather’s head.”

He paused for a moment, seeing our shock. “I’m very sorry. He was dead before we even got him inside.”

“Wait a minute. That can’t be. How can this happen? No. No. Grandpa is just out for a walk. He can’t be dead. His daughter needs him. We need him,” I was rambling and pacing when Max put an arm around me and pulled me down into a chair.

I looked into his face. What’s going on here? This is a nightmare. None of this is really happening. Then I saw the tears in Max’s eyes. It is real. Oh, God, how can we tell Mother about this? We just held each other.

A half-hour passed before Father came back. “Sorry I took so long. I found a telephone and wanted to make a couple of calls. Are you two okay?”

The doctor walked back over to us. Father looked at him, then at us, and then back at the doctor again.

“My wife, is she—“

“No, it’s not your wife.”

The doctor put a hand on Father's shoulder and led him away to tell him what happened. When he was done, Father sank into a chair, his face in his hands. After a few minutes, he stood up perfectly straight, threw out his chest, and shook out his arms like that would make this horror end. He walked over to us.

“Okay. As if we don’t have enough to deal with, someone up there has thrown another disaster at us. First things first, I’m going to tell the doctor and nurses that they are not to tell your mother about her father’s death. I think we need to wait a few days until she’s strong enough to hear the news. I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do, and she might be angry at us for not telling her right away, but for now, I think it’s the best thing."

"I’m going to go down to the emergency room to formally identify his body, and then I’ll call a funeral home to make the necessary arrangements. If your mother is well enough to attend the funeral, she will. If not, she’ll have to grieve later.”

He stroked my hair and put his hand beneath my chin, doing the same to Max. “Okay? We’ll get through this together.”

Max and I nodded, but at that moment, I didn’t feel like we would even get through the day.

***

The next few days were a blur. I had mixed emotions about visiting the hospital. It was wonderful seeing Mother’s wounds healing, knowing that she’ll be able to come home soon, but I felt like we were lying to her by not telling her about her father. We buried Grandpa Nick in the plot next to Grandma Greta. It was a small group of mourners with Mother in the hospital and Alex in London. When we called Alex to tell him about his father’s death, he agreed that we should wait a few days to tell Mother. We lost the connection before we could update him on her condition, but the call lasted long enough for him to know that she was getting better. I can’t imagine how he feels, being thousands of miles away from these family tragedies and not being able to help.

Finally, Mother was well enough to come home. This past week felt like the longest in my life. The nurse showed me how to change her bandages, thinking she’d be more comfortable with a woman doing it, and the doctor reviewed the warnings on the medications he prescribed. The dosage recommendations have to be strictly followed, and the pills should not be taken at the same time.

When we arrived home, Uncle Jozef and Aunt Rose were there with little Viktor, who greeted us at the door with a very loud "Welcome Home!" and a flower. Rose had been cooking all day, and there was a beautiful bouquet of flowers in the vase on the table. Mother began to cry, so Father helped her into the bedroom to rest. By the time he came out, Rose and I had set the table, and we were ready to sit down to eat. Father looked tired and needed a good meal. Rose brought a bowl of broth into the bedroom for my mother, and she was in there a long time. Tomorrow will be the first day of our journey back to normal, but I’m beginning to forget what normal looks and feels like.

Father woke early the next morning. He wanted to go to the office for a little while, figuring that Mother would sleep most of the day. Shortly after he left, however, she was in the kitchen making breakfast for me and Max.

“Mother, what are you doing? I asked. “You’re supposed to be resting. I can take care of things until you’re well enough.”

She nodded with a sigh, keeping both hands on the counter as she walked toward the kitchen table and gingerly lowered herself into a chair. Max and I finished getting breakfast ready. Mother didn’t eat much, but she said that after a week of hospital food, even simple toast and jam was a treat. There was a lot of tension at the table. Max and I didn’t know what to talk about.

“We need to check in on my father,” Mother said, breaking the silence.

Max and I looked at each other. “Yes, soon, when you’ve recovered a bit,” Max said. Neither of us made eye contact with her.

“Is something wrong? Something you’re not telling me?”

I kept my eyes on my toast.

“Tell me now, or I’ll call your father at work,” she said, grimacing as she began to stand.

“No, no, sit,” Max said, helping her back down into her seat. “We’ll tell you.”

 And we did, or rather Max did. I sat there quietly, seeing the disbelief in her eyes. I walked around the table to put my arms around her, but she pushed me away as she stood and shuffled into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.

We decided to let her rest, so Max and I tried to busy ourselves with reading. Peter called to check on us. He asked if he could come by after dinner, but I told him that today wasn’t a good day. Soon though. Not long into our conversation, Max took the phone, and he whispered with Peter for almost a half-hour.

Father came home for lunch, so I heated up some of the stew that Aunt Rose left for us. We told him that we had to tell Mother about her father. He hurried to the bedroom, but the door was locked, and Mother wasn’t responding to his requests to open it. He went for a screwdriver and removed the doorknob. Max and I peered in as he went to the bed. She appeared to be sleeping.

“Zofia,” Father whispered, stroking her hand. “Zofia,” a little louder now, shaking her arm. “Zofia!”

I stepped into the room and noticed a pill bottle on the floor.

“Father, look,” I said.

He reached down and picked up the bottle. It was empty.

 “Zofia! No, no, why!”

Max ran to the phone to call for an ambulance.

“Oh Zofia,” Father whispered, rocking her in his arms.

I wanted to go to the bed and hug them, but it was as if my feet were stuck in quicksand.

“They’ll be here in a few minutes, “Max said from the doorway. He couldn’t bring himself to step into the room.

A few minutes? We all knew it was already too late.